Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Responsible to All & Obligated to None

I’ve been thinking a lot about Mayor Davis’ comments in the New York Times recently about gay people and how his religion espouses that they won’t be admitted into heaven. He said he doesn’t hate gay people; he just hates the sin they commit (or, really, what they “do”).

What is it they “do,” exactly? How is it different from what heterosexual people “do?” They laugh, they cry. They hope, they despair. They dream, they wake. They fall in love. They marry (when allowed). They live in long-term, committed relationships. They divorce. They have children. They buy homes. They start businesses. They are our doctors, our lawyers, our lawmakers, our teachers, our plumbers, our electricians, our grocery clerks, our bus drivers, our mechanics, our house cleaners. They are our neighbors, our families, our colleagues, our classmates, our friends.

I’m not going to get into the religious arguments on this issue. As an elected official, that’s not my job. My job, though, is to represent the city and the people of Vallejo. My religious beliefs don’t belong in our government because our government isn’t about me. It’s about us, the People of Vallejo. ALL people of Vallejo.

Forty-nine years ago, John F. Kennedy gave a speech to the Greater Houston Ministerial Association on religion and the separation of church and state. In classic JFK style, he cut a complex and emotionally charged issue down to just its essential elements. It wasn’t about whether he was Catholic or not. It was about who he was, what he wanted to do, and how he wanted to serve. He stated what he believed the People expected from the office of the President, from the People’s representative. And ultimately it came down to, “responsible to all and obligated to none.”

I love that. In seven words he summarized what I believe to be the key responsibility of any elected official.

Kennedy didn’t say that an elected official had to agree with all. Or act at the direction of all. Or espouse the views of all. He said we are responsible to all. That responsibility carries a very heavy weight. As elected representatives, we must be able place our personal interests and beliefs secondary to the best interests of our city and our constituents.

Kennedy said it best, so I won’t try to re-write it. But I ask that you go to this link ( and read or even listen to him give this speech. It was nearly 50 years go. Yet his words are as true today as they were then. Just add one more word to update his list of issues: homosexuality.

“Finally, I believe in an America where religious intolerance will someday end, where all men and all churches are treated as equals, where every man has the same right to attend or not to attend the church of his choice, where there is no Catholic vote, no anti-Catholic vote, no bloc voting of any kind, and where Catholics, Protestants, and Jews, at both the lay and the pastoral levels, will refrain from those attitudes of disdain and division which have so often marred their works in the past, and promote instead the American ideal of brotherhood…

I do not speak for my church on public matters; and the church does not speak for me. Whatever issue may come before me as President, if I should be elected, on birth control, divorce, censorship, gambling or any other subject, I will make my decision in accordance with these views -- in accordance with what my conscience tells me to be in the national interest, and without regard to outside religious pressure or dictates. And no power or threat of punishment could cause me to decide otherwise.”

Vallejo is still in the midst of a serious economic crisis that is threatening the very viability of our city. We are holding on by our fingertips. We cannot overcome this crisis unless we’re all working together. But we can’t do that if we can't stand together in solidarity, compassion, respect, and tolerance.

The fact is that words are powerful and words can hurt. I’ve heard the hurt in the voices of my gay and lesbian friends in the past few days, and that makes me hurt. I’ve heard the fear in their voices, wondering if they will face a growing persecution in a town they once thought of as open and inclusive. I’ve heard the anger in their voices at having to hear, as many have heard for much of their lives, that they’re somehow “not right.” That is not right.

But I firmly believe that in every crisis there is an opportunity. And I think we have an opportunity here, a “teachable moment,” where we can open up the lines of communication, share who we are, find our commonalities, look one another in the eye and understand that we are all people, all neighbors, all Vallejoans.

Many people talk about how wonderful it is that Vallejo is so diverse – especially during election season. This shouldn’t be an idea that is dusted off every two or every four years. Valuing diversity means we live it every day. There should be no parameters on that diversity. Vallejo is diverse, and we respect and welcome ALL people.